My omnibus post on all the new boardgames I saw at GenCon this year is up at Paste.

Vonda McIntyre won the sci-fi Triple Crown for her 1978 novel Dreamsnake, taking the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards for best novel, yet the book appears not to have the legacy those honors might have indicated. I’d never heard of the book before starting to read the list of Hugo winners, and it was probably two years before I stumbled on it in any bookstore, new or used. Combining elements of fantasy novels and post-apocalyptic stories, Dreamsnake reads today like an advanced YA fantasy novel, maybe a little too mature for younger readers, but with timeless themes and an emphasis on the protagonist finding her identity.

Snake is a healer in what we later learn is Earth after a nuclear war has ravaged the globe and left large swaths of land uninhabitable. She plies her trade with three trained snakes whom she can use to produce medications through their venom, including one, a “dreamsnake” known as Grass, whose bite induces morphine-like effects in dying people and allows them to die without pain and to dream through their final hours. In the first chapter, however, Snake’s dreamsnake is killed by fearful peasants whose child she’s trying to save, starting her on a quest to go to Center, a feudal city hostile to healers, to try to obtain another dreamsnake. The journey brings Snake into contact with a young girl, Melissa, who becomes important in the resolution of the story, and has two men following them across the landscape, one out of love and one with unknown (but presumably sinister) intent.

The quest itself is unorthodox, and doesn’t end with the usual Kill the Big Foozle climax we expect from fantasy novels (and almost every fantasy RPG ever), which may be part of why the book doesn’t seem to have the following of some other acclaimed sci-fi/fantasy novels of the era. Snake is a fascinating protagonist, however, attuned to her own feelings and those of others, while the setting’s combination of lost civilization and scientific progress (genetic modification is common, for example, with no anti-GMO zealots in sight, probably because they’re dead) is a novel one. Melissa’s subplot is hackneyed – stuff like this exists, but it’s a familiar trope in fiction – and I expected her role in the conclusion to be more significant given the time spent on Snake’s relationship with her. The clarity of McIntyre’s prose breaks down in the final three chapters, when Snake approaches and enters the “broken dome” in search of a new dreamsnake, with more abstruse descriptions of both setting and action standing in contrast to the evocative writing of the first three-fourths of the book.

Dreamsnake also tackles a lot of themes that may have been out of the norm in the 1970s but would be unremarkable today – birth control and LGBT rights among them – that make it seem more like a young adult novel forty years later. I hesitate on that description because there is some sex in the book, nothing explicit but also enough that I wouldn’t let my daughter read this until she’s older. By the time she’s in high school, she’d be mature enough for the content, and the book does feature two strong female characters (although a male character does come and save the day at the end, alas).

Next up: I’m reading John T. Edge’s The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South and am also about 80% through the audiobook version of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction. The latter is narrated by the same actor who played state attorney Rupert Bond on The Wire.

The Vorrh & the Erstwhile.

The British author-painter B. Catling’s dark, surrealist novels The Vorrh and its sequel, The Erstwhile, reflect his background as an artist while also drawing on the traditions of magical realism from postcolonial literary lights like Gabriel García Márquez. Set in in a fictional German colony in central Africa between the two world wars, where the forest known as the Vorrh functions as a Gaia-like sentient entity, the novels explore an expansive tapestry of characters and settings that Catling manages to weave together in totally unexpected ways.

I read The Vorrh, the first book in the trilogy (with book three, The Cloven, due out next May), back in January of 2016, while I was out with a respiratory infection that nearly put me in the hospital, with fevers of 102-103 every day for almost a full week, so I never reviewed the book here and probably don’t remember it as well as I think I do … although if ever there was a novel to be read while feverish and slightly delusional, The Vorrh is it. Catling spends a lot of that book building his world, including the mythology of the forest, which can cause people to lose their memories after just a few hours inside its boundaries, and the real/unreal city of Essenwald located at its edge, where German authorities and businessmen live and attempt to exploit the area’s natural resources, a city relocated brick-by-brick from the homeland. The novel introduces many major characters who’ll appear again in The Erstwhile, including Ishmael, the cyclops-man of uncertain origin; Ghertrude and Cyrena, two sheltered women of Essenwald; and the Mutter family, who maintain a house with mysterious denizens in its basement. The first novel also introduces Williams, the explorer who seeks to traverse the Vorrh but loses much in the process, and Tsungali, the native who seeks to kill Williams for his own murky reasons. Little is clear, by design, including the ways in which these characters’ stories will meet, recombine, and separate over the course of the trilogy.

The Erstwhile starts to elucidate some of what’s happening in the Vorrh and what the Vorrh itself seems to be doing outside of the city, including the beings of the book’s title, fallen angels in semi-human form who have been forgotten by God and live bizarre, parallel existences around the forest, with several of them now residing in European hospitals where they’re studied by researchers. Sidrus, a secondary character in book one where he tries to protect Williams from Tsungali, takes on a larger role here as he seeks to avenge himself against his enemies, including Ishmael. William Blake, himself a painter and poet, appears briefly on its pages, as his painting Nebuchadnezzar adorns the book’s cover and, it turns out, is a painting of one of the Erstwhile. Ghertrude gives birth, only to find that the basement-dwelling Kin have other plans for the child. Ishmael finds himself called upon by the city’s business leaders to try to find the Limboia, native timber workers whose minds have been erased by years of working in the Vorrh, but who disappeared without a trace some years earlier, because Ishmael is the only man known to have spent significant time in the forest without losing his mind. We also meet the aged German theology professor Hector Schumann, who becomes a central character as he meets the various Erstwhile living in facilities in Germany and England, and whose connection to these beings and the Vorrh itself remains a mystery even at the end of book two.

Catling has woven himself quite a story through two-thirds of the series, one that I’m still not entirely convinced he can complete in satisfying fashion in the third book given how involved and strange the various threads have been so far. The first book could stand on its own because he’d created a new world that was credible and yet impossible, with richly drawn characters and evocative prose that gave depth and color to his otherworldly setting. Crafting a coherent story with this many characters across multiple locales is another matter, however, and The Erstwhile moves everything forward without much resolution – which may come in The Cloven, although the ending of The Erstwhile was a particularly unsatisfying given how the characters got to that point (including a needlessly graphic torture-murder). That specific event at the book’s conclusion needs further elucidation in book three, as does Schumann’s role in all of this, and where the child Rowena fits in, and what exactly the Vorrh is trying to achieve for itself. Catling has certainly set up a difficult task for the third book, but so much of these first two books compelled me to keep reading that I’m going to continue to see just how he manages to resolve all of these plots.

Next up: I just finished Barry Estabrook’s expose of the modern pork industry, Pig Tales, and have begun my friend Jay Jaffe’s upcoming The Cooperstown Casebook, due out July 25th.

The Magician’s Land.

I loved Lev Grossman’s novel The Magicians, reading the entire book (a review copy from the publisher) on a single cross-country flight right when the book came out, for the deft blend of parody of the coming-of-age magic saga subgenre (Harry Potter, LotR, Narnia) with a fantastic, original story. Quentin Coldwater’s journey from alienated youth to magic school to fighting a save-the-world sort of magic battle followed familiar conventions in structure but always took unanticipated turns, and brought us a small group of well-developed, engaging characters to follow through the trilogy.

I disagreed with most of you on the second book, The Magician King, which felt transitional to me and took away some of the magic (the reading sort, not the kind in the books) for me that had me loving the first book. So I held off for a bit on book three, The Magician’s Land, to see if it would redeem the whole series for me or give me another downer note that detracted from the joy I experienced in book one. It gave me much more of the former, another rousing story that again walks away from cliched plot lines, moving the giant fight scene (masterfully written) to the middle of the book and concluding the series on a fitting note that manages to be a victory lap without giving the main character an improbably perfect ending.

When the book begins, Quentin is an outcast, having lost his crown and even his right to live in Fillory, and is recruited to join a mysterious magical heist. We jump back and forth for the first half of the novel, learning how Quentin returned to Brakebills briefly to teach, then lost that position while rescuing a student, also encountering a demon who appears to be after him personally. Meanwhile, in Fillory, the world is quite literally ending, and Eliot and Janet have to set out on a quest to try to save it – but, this being Quentin’s trilogy, really, he’s going to have to help them do it. Grossman turns several conventions of the genre on their heads with the complex resolution, and while he leaves a few strings poorly tied (such as Betsy’s adventure) and we get the unlikely conclusion where no major character dies, he settles the Fillory timeline in a way that makes internal sense while also giving Quentin and some of his friends a sensible ending.

Aside from the usual references to other classics of the genre – the Russian professor mocking “Dum-blee-dore” and the nod to seven-league boots (found in C.S. Lewis’ and Diana Wynne Jones’ books, among others) were my favorites – Grossman seems to have centered much of this final leg of the trilogy on the relationship between reader and story, and what stories can tell us about us. All three books have sought to undermine the sense of life as story, that our narratives are arranged for us and that life’s plot threads will all be neatly tied together for us. Grossman has to balance between the use of “destiny” in the constructed world of Fillory – constructed by whom, it is never revealed, although we do learn that it is indeed turtles all the way down – and the lack thereof here in the real world of the books; Quentin and friends have to piece together solutions without magical or divine guidance, don’t always get what they want, and face frequent disillusionment when their lives don’t unfurl like the stories they loved. (Grossman also gives us more of the story behind the stories, although nothing could match the revelation about Martin at the end of the first book.)

Where the magicians do benefit from their lives in two worlds is how Fillory specifically and magic in general gives them a second lens through which to see their secular lives. Most YA magic novels are coming-of-age stories where the characters come of age through defeating enemies in the magical realm. The Magicians novels have characters coming of age in both worlds at once, one supporting the other, not always in clean or planned ways. Where Grossman diverts from this path, keeping everyone intact for the end of the series, it makes for a satisfying conclusion because we like most of the characters, but it does shift a little from the thread of realism in the first two books. A few redshirts die this time around, but the core characters get their mostly happy ending. I’m okay with that, just like I didn’t want to see Harry, Ron, or Hermione die (and I’m still bitter about Fred), but it conflicts with the book’s theme about fiction failing to capture the the freedom and chaos of real life.

Next up: I’m way behind on reviews, but I did just begin Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War today.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (miniseries).

I read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke’s 2004 best-selling novel and winner of the Hugo Award, in November of 2008, an experience so immersive and enjoyable that I can remember specific places where I sat and read it. It’s as perfect as any contemporary work of fiction I’ve encountered, with numerous complex characters; a soaring, multi-faceted plot; and the highbrow British-English prose style appropriate to its early 19th-century setting. I’ve read at least a half-dozen novels of a thousand pages or more, including some considered among the greatest novels of all time, but I’d still take Jonathan Strange over all of them, not least because there isn’t a wasted word among the over 300,000 in its text.

That experience with the book raised my expectations for the BBC adaptation of the book to unreasonable levels, even though the network chose to adapt it as a seven-hour mini-series rather than trying to cram its bulkl into a single two-hour film. The resulting series, available on iTunes for about $20 (it’s not streaming anywhere I can see; amazon has the Blu-Ray for $25), is one of the best TV series I’ve seen in years, better even than season one of Orphan Black or Broadchurch, even on par with The Wire for giving viewers so many well-acted, complex characters intimately involved in the central plot.

The titular characters of the novel and series are magicians in the early 1800s who endeavor to restore English magic, which has been lost from the land for about 300 years. Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is the mousy, pedantic, egotistical magician of learning who sets off the book’s events when he restores a dead noblewoman, Lady Pole (Alice Englert), to life by summoning a creature known only as The Gentleman (Marc Warren), making a bad bargain that reopens the door between England and the otherworld where magic resides. Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) is the young prodigy whose innate talent for magic draws the interest of Norrell, who wishes to tutor Strange in book-learning rather than in “practical” magic, only to set off a rivalry between the two when Norrell’s acts exact a very high cost on Strange and his young, beautiful wife Arabella (Charlotte Riley). Meanwhile, the Gentleman, having regained access to this realm, lays his claim to Lady Pole, enchants the servant Stephen Black (Arikon Bayare), the “nameless slave” who is to become king under the prophecy of the fairy/magician known as the Raven King, who appears only briefly on screen and looks like a refugee from a Norse black metal band.

The series is remarkably faithful to the original text, preserving all of the essential characters, including many I didn’t mention above such as Norrell’s servant (and occasional practitioner of magic) John Childermass (Enzo Cilenti, whose voice I wish to steal) and the vagrant street-magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye), while limiting diversions from the book’s plot to minor changes of convenience. Yet the series is powered primarily by the command performances of its two leads, Marsan and Carvel, with Marsan playing Norrell as a sort of upper-class Peter Pettigrew, simpering yet also dismissive, while Carvel imbues Strange with the passion and exuberance befitting his character’s youth before the character’s disillusionment drives him to madness. The great performances extend to the actors I’ve cited here, playing secondary roles, particularly Warren as the predatory charmer The Gentleman, with clawlike fingernails and “thistledown” hair, and Kaye apparently having the time of his life as the staggering, filthy Vinculus.

The demands on the editors of this series must have been huge, with a variety of sets and settings and impressive special effects for a television series, leading to many potential points of confusion as the focus shifted from Strange to Norrell to the King’s Roads (the “otherworld” of magic and fairies) and back around. I’m of the lay opinion that editing is a lot like umpiring in baseball: you notice it far more when it’s bad than when it’s good, and if it’s really good, you forget it’s even there. It was only while watching the final episode that it occurred to me how seamless the transitions from scene to scene or even shot to shot were, even though the pacing had increased in the final two hours of the series. Once Strange has entered the King’s Roads and descended into the madness that drives all of the related subplots toward one huge conclusion, the story starts flying and the use of more magic within the story could easily create confusion for viewers unfamiliar with the story, but strong editing and camerawork ensure that the viewer never loses the perspective required to keep pace.

One of you mentioned some dismay that Strange’s time serving as the official army magician under Wellington was given relatively less time on screen than on the page, an understandable disappointment at a choice that was likely made either for budgetary reasons or because the writers didn’t want to bog the story down in a segment where Strange and Norrell are completely apart. I thought the portrayal of the sycophantic fraudster Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) was too much of a caricature, and the relationship between Strange and Flora Graysteel in Venice required some more on-screen explanation. On the plus side, the series did a better job portraying the book’s ambiguous conclusion than Clarke herself did on the page, and while I still wanted a happier ending, at least the series turned the vague resolution into clear images the viewer could take away.

I would still suggest anyone interested in the series start with the book, both for background and for the sheer pleasure of the experience. The novel has much dry wit that can’t translate to the screen, as well as copious footnotes that mostly add humor to the story, and Clarke’s prose sparkles in ways that will never come through on film. But the adaptation here is so thorough that I believe any viewer could approach it without the background of the book and still follow the entire story without any trouble, which, for a work this dense, is a major achievement. I know in the time of “peak TV” there’s tremendous competition for your eyeballs and nowhere near enough time to watch everything you want – I might see a tenth of the series I’d like to see – but if you’re going to binge anything this offseason, put Jonathan Strange on your list.

Paladin of Souls.

Lois McMaster Bujold has won four Hugo Awards for Best Novel, matching Robert Heinlein for the most wins by any author, winning for both works of science fiction and of fantasy. Her most recent win was for her 2004 novel Paladin of Souls, a high fantasy work that seemed to me to have an extraordinarily strong religious or spiritual component, but one that was fully integrated into the story rather than one that beats you about the head like a certain large feline, sorceress, and armoire may have done.

Paladin of Souls starts about as slowly as any fantasy book I’ve read (disclaimer: I haven’t read that many) and appears to be another one of them ol’ “let’s take a long long time to get from one place to another” sort of books, which has to be the most overused plot device in fantasy or sci-fi. Ista, the dowager and former queen (royina, in the book’s vernacular) of Chalion, is bored with her fate as shut-in, having recovered from the curse that inflicted madness upon her for many years (apparently covered in the preceding book, The Curse of Chalion), and sets off on a journey with the requisite motley crew of associates, with no particular destination in mind. The group includes the portly and slightly fatuous divine dy Cabon, the courier turned lady’s maid Liss (who was the most interesting character by a mile), the warrior brothers Ferda and Foix, and a bunch of guards. The group first runs into a raiding party from the neighboring state of Jokona, then takes shelter in the town/castle of Porifors, only to find that entity fall under siege by an incredibly powerful Jokonian contingent. But there’s a mystery afoot in Porifors, and it turns out that the gods are not done with Ista – one god, the Bastard, in particular seems to have further plans to use her as the vessel to save Porifors and stop the Jokonians’ Hitlerian plans for expansion.

Ista’s madness does not return but she regains some of the powers she held during that earlier period, including her “second sight” that allows her to see souls as light and shadows on their possessors – including demons, who figure heavily in the plot, and souls damaged by the ill usage of others. Ista must learn how to utilize this ability and its related power to manipulate souls so that she can save Porifors, and Chalion by extension, while also granting salvation to several of the people around her, including those posssessed by the novel’s many demonic forces. While I know nothing of Bujold’s religious beliefs, I found it impossible to read this as anything other than a metaphor for the Christian notions of dualism, redemption, and salvation through Ista/Christ. Ista becomes the only means of saving one character whose soul is otherwise doomed to damnation because of a demon’s trick that has given him physical life beyond death – I’m being ambiguous on purpose here to avoid fully spoiling it – and also must find ways to save the various characters directly possessed by demons, a sort of absolution by exorcism that comes at the end of personal battles between man (or woman) and demon for ultimate control of that person’s soul. Whether you find that angle compelling may depend on your views of religion or of dualism; I think it works on two levels, one a spiritual one, but the other a compelling way to give a story a climactic battle scene with somewhat less bloodshed than normal and without relying on ill-defined “magic” the way so many fantasy stories do. And, unlike George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones novel, there’s no gratuitous violence toward the women to try to up the plot ante or otherwise depict the world as brutal and dark.

Ista herself is a less than stellar protagonist, however, because she’s strong but plain: She wishes to fight her role as Chosen One, accepts it, and powers through the final showdown on her intelligence and her strength of will, but there’s little or nothing inherently interesting about her persona. Her handmaiden, Liss, appears less frequently on the page but has more depth to her character: A well-born courier who chose that career for its potential for adventure, she spends more time helping execute Ista’s plans for battle than helping her lady dress or fix her hair, and her generally badass nature reminded me of the character Medea from Atlantis, played by Amy Manson, who now portrays Merida (with a silly wig) in Once Upon a Time. Manson’s Medea was indeed badass in several ways, and gloriously conflicted between Pasiphäe and Jason while fighting like you’d expect a stock male warrior to fight. Bujold injected Liss with that fierceness, and with that anti-feminine nature, but then gave us far too little of the character while embroiling her in an out-of-character flirtation with Foix.

The weak characterization of Ista combined with the slow start to the apparent journey plotline meant that the first third or so of Paladin of Souls plodded along without much promise, made worse by my lack of familiarity with the backstory. Once Ista reaches Porifors and the mystery starts up, followed by the intense siege and subsequent battle, the pacing was much more satisfactory and in line with better genre works (which I always find read faster than more literary and/or hifalutin works), but it didn’t leave me with the same wonder as better Hugo winners like Hyperion or Among Others, or even novels that were more clever but a bit less successful in plot like The City and the City.

Next up: Graham Greene’s England Made Me.

Lord of Light.

I’m en route to Arizona to cover the Fall League this week, so I’ll be at games Monday to Friday and hope to see many of you out there. That also means I won’t be commenting as much on the LCS till I get back home.

I have a vague recollection of someone telling me while we were both in college that he loved Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, winner of the 1969? Hugo Award for Best Novel, because it was so funny. Perhaps the memory is off, because the book is intensely clever and sardonic but only rarely funny. It’s also a bit inscrutable and, while very intelligent, it didn’t seem to have a clear point to me – if its intent was metaphorical, which I can only assume it was, I had a hard time relating its players to forces in the modern world.

The book is set in the distant future in a world other than Earth that has been populated – or, really, invaded – by humans, the first of whom are now known as the First and who have used advanced technologies to achieve a sort of immortality, where they can transplant their personae, including their memories, knowledge, and even some special abilities that I have to think inspired Gary Gygax at some point, into new bodies when their old ones are injured or wear out. These humans have taken on the identities of Hindu gods, and have used their powers to subdue the native species of the planet and deny the humans and other denizens, the rights to any advanced technologies, even the printing press, that might lead to a popular revolt against their powers.

Into this comes the Lord of Light, the reincarnation (so to speak) of the one we know as the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, Mahasamatman, or, as he prefers to be called, “Sam.” Having been divested of his mortal coil by the gods in a previous era, Sam returns to the physical realm, brought back by Yama, the “deathgod,” to challenge the status quo and perhaps return power to the people. (Deathgod is the name of my new black-metal project with members of Puig Destroyer.) This leads to a series of intrigues and bloody battles, not to mention numerous body switches, as Sam’s return leads to the revival of Buddhism, albeit with a lot of killing that the real-life Buddha would not have liked one bit.

Some of the repartee between Sam and his various Hindu-pantheon antagonists is indeed humorous, but I sensed more satire or even farce in that and in the cartoonish violence of the numerous clashes between Sam and whoever’s fighting on his side in that particular melée and the main “gods” on the other side who will stop at nothing to maintain their grip on power. Was Zelazny, a lapsed Catholic, mocking the religion-fueled wars that define so much of human history? Or merely taking aim at tyranny and the increasingly brutal steps any dictatorship must take to maintain its hold on power, especially once technologies take hold in the populace and allow for the faster spread of information? (Witness how closed North Korea must remain to keep its people in the most abject state-mandated poverty.) Is he calling into question the historicity of key religious figures, like Gautama or Jesus? Or is there nothing more to this than a giant free-for-all that features power-hungry people playing with weapons that no single person should possess?

I think I got more from Lord of Light as an obvious influence on the work of Neil Gaiman, who’s quoted on the cover of the book, than as a story in its own right. It’s impossible to read this work and not immediately think of what Gaiman did in American Gods, and did far more successfully, not just stealing names but repurposing myths and then writing his own legends, an exponential improvement on Zelazny’s work but one that may have needed Zelazny to come first and open the door.

Evaluated on its own, however, Lord of Light seemed rather soulless, no pun intended. (Okay, pun intended.) Although the reader is obviously supposed to side with Sam, he comes across as a disinterested revolutionary, one driven neither by self-interest nor selflessness, only pushed by the desire to topple the gods themselves. None of the characters earns much development or depth, which is disappointing in cases like Tak, the ape with an apparently human brain and personality, who deserves a back story here as much as any more central character. The gods want power because they want power. They desire their immortality (as opposed to the “real death”) because, hey, immortality – but allowing the proletariat to reincarnate themselves via mind transfer won’t end that practice. Without fleshing out his characters, Zelazny presented us with a work of great ingenuity that ultimately isn’t much less cold than hard science fiction works like Rendezvous with Rama that focus so much on the technical details that the authors forget the need to craft characters with whom the reader can identify or at least to whom they can relate.

Next up: My posts are a bit behind my reading but I’m currently about ¾ of the way through Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, which I already like more than I liked either of the other two Pynchon novels I read, including the impenetrable Gravity’s Rainbow.

The Graveyard Book.

Neil Gaiman won his first Hugo Award for Best Novel for his modern epic American Gods, a masterful blend of pagan mythology and magical realism that breathes some life into the generally-overused Chosen One plot structure, thanks in large part to Gaiman’s prodigious imagination. After withdrawing the related book Anansi Boys from consideration for the same honor in 2006, he won the prize a second time for his young adult novel The Graveyard Book, which brings his same charming prose style and clever world-building mind to a gentler story without most of the violence or sex that populate those two earlier works.

There’s an exception to that last bit, and it’s at the start of the book, perhaps the most overused trope in all of young-adult literature (and not a few Disney movies): The orphaned child protagonist. The toddler to soon be known as Nobody “Bod” Owens wakes in a house where his parents and sister have just been knifed to death in their sleep, escaping only due to happenstance and his own wanderlust, ending up in the local disused graveyard where the deceased denizens protect him from the killer. Bod grows up in the graveyard, raised by the Owens (dead for a few hundred years), watched by the not-quite-dead guardian Silas, forbidden to leave the cemetery grounds for fear it will expose him to his would-be murderer, Jack.

Of course, you know the story has to end with Bod facing Jack one final time, and since this is a children’s book, Bod’s going to come out all right, so the onus is on Gaiman to create tension within each of the episodes leading up to the 80-page chapter where the final confrontation occurs. Gaiman infuses Bod with the curiosity of most children, only partly sated by the attempts of the graveyard’s dwellers to educate him, leading him to various excursions outside of and underneath the cemetery itself, setting up the series of events or points of interest that will all come into play in the last battle.

The core story is straightforward, as you’d expect in a self-contained, 300-page young adult novel, but Gaiman has populated his necropolis with a small cast of eccentrics – I suppose expecting the shades to be simply drawn was unreasonable – that bring to mind everyone from Robert Altman to Jasper Fforde. They’re not weirdos, just dead and a little outdated, and have much to teach Bod (and the young reader) about the value of life and living it with just as much (or little) fear as is necessary.

But the book is just as much for the parent reading with or alongside the child; this is very much a book about rearing a son or daughter and learning to let go the older the child gets. Bod’s search for independence and agency is far from unusual; all things considered, he’s a rather compliant child, curious but only occasionally reckless, bailed out a couple of times by Silas or one of the other spirits who’ve been raising him. He touches something hot (metaphorically speaking), gets burned, and learns not to do it again; no matter how many times you say “don’t touch that,” you know the child won’t really believe you until s/he tests your admonition out in the flesh. And when Bod has to fight the final battle without Silas’ protecting, albeit with lots of help from his noncorporeal family, he comes of age right before us in a satisfying but far from entirely happy ending.

My daughter just turned nine, but I think the traumatic introduction where Bod’s family is killed offscreen might upset her a little too much; she was fine with Lily and James Potter dying, but that occurred before page 1 and it’s a lot less real to read of someone dying via spell than dying via blade. I’ll keep the book and leave it to her own judgment to decide when she wants to tackle it.

Next up: Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman.

Anansi Boys.

This will serve as your umpteenth reminder that my rankings of all thirty MLB farm systems go up on ESPN.com on Wednesday, for Insiders, with the global top 100 on Thursday and each team’s top ten and farm report on Friday.

Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys takes one of the many pagan deities he invoked in his magnum opus, American Gods, and repurposes him as a peculiar Florida father who constantly mortifies his son, Fat Charlie, who isn’t fat, and then mortifies Fat Charlie further by dying in ignominious fashion. Flying back from a somewhat grim expat life in London, Fat Charlie runs headlong into his past, only to discover that he has a brother, known only as Spider, who appears to have inherited all of dear old dad’s powers – including the power of persuasion, which comes in rather handy in this story. Spider’s arrival turns Fat Charlie’s life inside out, costing him his job, his fiancée, and his freedom, eventually leading Fat Charlie back to Florida and the four crones who helped him bury his father and reconnect with Spider.

Anansi Boys – there’s a pun in there, in case you missed it – is two books in one: a madcap farce, and then a more serious meditation on dualism and the nature of identity. The shift is jarring; you’re laughing for 150 pages or so, and then you realize you haven’t laughed in a while, even though the pace of the narrative hasn’t shifted or slowed at all. The farce starts the moment Spider shows up, turning Fat Charlie into the straight man and the mark for no end of cons, with Spider using his apartment as home base for what looks like a long, unending con that also brings Fat Charlie’s unctuous, embezzling thief of a boss into the circle, a move that endangers Fat Charlie’s freedom and perhaps his life. Spider hones in on Rosie, Fat Charlie’s ill-matched fiancée, even trying to use his irresistible (because they’re magic) charms on her harridan mother, who has wanted Rosie to dump Fat Charlie since the moment they got together. Key to all of this is everyone else’s inability to distinguish Spider from Fat Charlie, even though they don’t look alike.

The eventual denouement comes about when Fat Charlie ends up in jail, accused by the sleazy boss of the embezzlement he himself undertook, triggering a come-to-Anansi moment for Spider that puts Rosie on a cruise to the Caribbean with her mother and without either man, the boss on the run with blood on his hands and money in various Cayman Island bank accounts, and Daisy, Fat Charlie’s one-night stand/arresting officer, going all Falling Down over the boss guy getting away with murder. One critical coincidence, where Gaiman has Rosie run into the boss on the fictional island of St. Andrews, speeds us towards a single climax that involves every character, one that forces Fat Charlie to cross over into the “beginning of the world,” the homes of all of the animal-deities, including Anansi himself, to undo the bargain he once made with Tiger and to finally understand who Spider is to him.

While American Gods had the feel of an epic, almost a great-American-novel attempt, Anansi Boys is a romp, both for the reader thanks to the Wodehousian man-in-trouble segments where Spider is screwing up Fat Charlie’s life, and for Gaiman, who gets to indulge in the sort of otherworld-creation that helped make American Gods particularly memorable. The inclusion of some (presumably Gaiman-authored) folk tales around Anansi slows the story down at times, although they tend to be short and I imagine Gaiman intended to give Fat Charlie’s deal with Tiger and subsequent attempt to unravel it more context. What Anansi Boys might lack in scope, it more than makes up for in narrative greed.

Next up: I’ve just about finished Vernor Vinge’s 2007 Hugo winner Rainbows End.

Among Others.

Jo Walton’s novel Among Others, winner of both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel in 2012, is nothing like any of the other major science fiction or fantasy titles I’ve read. The story is instead a tender coming-of-age narrative with just a dash of magic thrown in, and the book as a whole functions as a paean to the classics of both genres, succeeding because of the appeal of its narrator-protagonist even though there’s minimal action in the novel itself. (The Kindle version is still just $2.99 through that link, more than worth the price.)

Morwenna Phelps (who goes by Mor or Mori) is a 15-year-old Welsh girl who has been left disabled after what is described for much of the book as a battle with her mother, an evil and/or insane witch, a battle that killed Mor’s twin sister. Mor is now at an English boarding school where she’s been sent by her estranged father, with whom she has no relationship (he walked out when she and her sister were babies) but forges a tenuous bond over their shared love of science fiction and fantasy novels – Mor reads more than any human being I’ve ever met, on the order of about 300 books a year given how quickly Walton has her going through titles in the story. As Mor goes through typical teenage stuff – dealing with cliques and ostracism, gaining and losing friends over trifles, taking her first steps into dating – she’s also dealing with the aftermath of what happened with her mother, trying to make sense of everything through books and through her limited magical abilities, which she’s reluctant to use.

Mor reminded me greatly of Flavia de Luce, the chemistry-obsessed heroine of Alan Bradley’s six mystery novels (beginning with The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie), but a few years older and therefore dealing with more real-world issues – the stuff we might see Flavia encounter now that Bradley has agreed to write four more stories with his star moving to boarding school in Canada. Mor’s experiences in boarding school are tame by today’s standards, but the point isn’t to watch her suffer or squirm – it’s to watch her cope using her relationship with fiction both in direct (finding shared interest in books with peers and adults alike) and indirect (taking lessons from the novels she’s read) fashion. Among Others is a wonderful book, but seeing it win all of these genre awards reminded me of Argo and The Artist doing the same in cinema: They won movie awards because both movies were about how great the movies are. Maybe Walton won because she wrote a book about the power of science fiction and fantasy novels, not to mention a guide to the best of the genres up to the late 1970s. The same novel without the elegaic aspect would have been just as successful as literature, but would it still have earned the same plaudits?

The magical/fantasy aspects of Among Others are part of the background fabric of the novel, rather than central to its story, which I believe is essential for genre fiction to be more than just, well, genre fiction. Mor’s magical skills are mostly limited to her ability to see ethereal creatures she calls “fairies” for lack of any more accurate term, and some power to cast spells that she barely uses; when the soft climax of a rematch with her mother occurs, Mor doesn’t use magic to fight, relying on her emerging self-confidence and ability to control her racing mind to defeat her mother’s ambush. But the bulk of the magic has happened already in the book’s past and comes to the reader slowly via Mor’s diary entries as she opens up to a few friends, particularly the fellow outcast Wim, about what actually happened and what she’s able to see. This book is all epilogue, creating a challenge for Walton to grab and hold the reader’s attention; she does it best because Morwenna herself is so compelling, insightful and intelligent beyond her years, yet still in many ways a child, trying to navigate adolescence on top of the challenges of having an crazy, power-hungry witch for a mother. If Walton wants to give us more of Morwenna’s story, before or after the events of Among Others, I’m all for it.

Next up: After I finish Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat today, I’ll start Margery Allingham’s The Tiger in the Smoke, one of the Albert Campion mysteries and apparently an inspiration for J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike novels.

Have a safe New Year’s Eve, everyone.

The Last Dragonslayer.

In case you missed anything, here’s the full set of links to the top 100 prospects package. The piece on 10 prospects who just missed the 100 will now run on Wednesday, rather than today.

I’m a longtime fan of Jasper Fforde’s novels – the Thursday Next series, the two Nursery Crimes books, and the dying-for-a-sequel Shades of Grey – and just tackled his first young adult novel, The Last Dragonslayer, last week. The first in the “Chronicles of Kazam” series, the book is quite Ffordian, just without the sex and swearing we’re used to from the Thursday Next books, yet still very ffunny and still willing to address big themes like death, moral choices, and greed.

Set in an alternate version of our world where magic exists (albeit in decline) and the U.K. has splintered into the Ununited Kingdoms, The Last Dragonslayer revolves around 15-year-old Jennifer Strange, the temporary manager of the Kazam employment agency for sorcerors and, as it turns out, the next in the line of dragonslayers. Here be dragons, or at least nearby, thanks to the Dragonpact that set up boundaries between dragons and humans – but the dragon nearest Kazam is dying and every human wants to rush in and claim some of the soon-to-be-unoccupied land. Fforde loves to riff on capitalism run amok and spares no one here in his assaults on human and corporate avarice, not even the local idiot King of Hereford, who believes Jennifer should be acting in his interests as one of his subjects.

Strange herself has no magical abilities, although she’s running the shop at Kazam, which rents out the services of its various mages for things like home rewirings and pizza deliveries (all those magic carpets have to find some use). She’s the ideal Ffordian hero: uncertain, underconfident, stronger than she realizes, female yet not overtly feminine, and fiercely loyal to her friends and to her principles. One of those friends, filling the role of Pickwick the dodo, is the Quarkbeast, whose only dialogue comprises the occasional interjection, “Quark.”

The successful completion of Jennifer’s mission involves more cunning than fighting, and she outwits several opponents to her half-formed plans to try to do the Right Thing, even though she’s far from clear on what that is. The story moves quickly, unfettered by much in the way of subplots – the missing owner of Kazam will likely wait for another day to resurface, and I imagine we’ll hear more of the origins of both Jennifer and her fellow foundling “Tiger” Prawns in a future book – with plenty of the dry wit that makes Fforde’s books such a pleasure to read. I think it’s appropriate for ages 8 or 9 and up, but wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to any adult.